Descriptions of adaptation options give the impression that adaptation is a static, ‘once off’ process. While this may be appropriate in some instances, adaptation should generally be an ‘adaptive’ planning process.
Uncertainties associated with the scale, timing and impacts of climate change and adaptation actions suggest that adaptation should involve an iterative cycle of decision-making, action, observation and learning (Wiseman et al. 2011). Where possible, adaptation becomes a ‘pathway’ rather than a one-off response (for example) to the anticipated worst case for climate change or its impacts. Adaptation planning envisages the sequential implementation of options or tactics that are suited to particular stages of climate change or its potential impact. New adaptive measures (possibly involving higher levels of intervention) are introduced in response to risk-based triggers, learnings about the effectiveness of adaptation actions, observations or new analyses of climate impacts.
This ‘adaptation pathways’ approach potentially allows investment in adaptation to long-term climate change impacts to be deferred until it is clearly required. It may also allow benefits to continue to accrue from the use of land that is projected to become exposed to climate hazards (e.g. enhanced flooding due to climate change). This can reduce the cost of adaptation, as well as make it more acceptable to those with a stake in current land uses.
The types of adaptation considered in the conceptualisation process described in section 3.4 are consistent with the adaptation pathways concept. In the early stages of climate change, effort may focus in the development of adaptive capacity, to detect emerging climate change impacts and/or test and refine adaptation options. Low level climate risks may be accepted at this time. As climate change impacts (or risks) emerge, there may be greater focus on actions which will modify climate events and/ or respond to their effects. Under severe climate change scenarios, transformational “reduce the risk” options may be considered. In the absence of feasible and cost-effective interventions, accepting the risk options may also be all that is available for some natural resources or systems.
Adaptation planning should consider long-term pathways for adaptation and incorporate monitoring and evaluation processes that support the required adaptive management processes (see section 10).